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What is a style guide? Why & how do we use them? 

Most people know style guides as rules for citation formatting. Common and popular style guides include MLA and APA, both of which the OWL maintains extensive resources on, but there are many more that the OWL does not cover in depth or at all.

Style guides, however, are not just for citation. They include a wide range of rules and guidelines for works in their respective fields, from grammar and language use to the font and size of headings in a work. Generally style manuals include everything a writer needs to know in order to make their work look and read just like every other work written in that style — the look of the page, the way other authors are referenced in the body of the work, and even the tone of the writing. In the corporate sphere, "style guide" is often synonymous with "branding guide," and in a way academic style guides can be thought of similarly. APA style brands papers with specific guidelines in the same way Apple's style guide brands their websites, advertisements, products, documentation, and even stores: you know an APA paper when you see one, just like you know an Apple device when you see one. 

In other words, style guides are used as a way of making common elements consistent across documents written by many writers, in many places, and in many circumstances; as a result, readers from any university (or other audience groups) can read a paper written in APA style and know immediately how to navigate the headings of the paper, which details will be listed in the abstract, how quotes will be introduced and marked, where to look for important citation information, and what each citation element represents. 

There are a great deal of style guides, both in academia and in industry; the OWL has resources on some of the more common ones, but not every style. Some general style guide examples include:

Associated Press Style (AP)  used by journalists and other news & media writers
Chicago (sometimes written Chicago/Turabian, or CMoS) used in the humanities 
Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers Style (IEEE) used in engineering & computer science 
American Medical Association (AMA)  used in nursing & other medical fields 
Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)  used in computing and information technology fields 
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) used in mechanical engineering 

Your discipline may have its own style guide not represented here; if you're not sure, take a moment to look it up!

Now that I know what a style guide is — what's next? 

Often writers (especially academic writers) need to adapt to new style conventions in specific situations (a journal's house style, a university's specific thesis & dissertation formatting requirements, etc.). If you find yourself needing to learn a new style guide, there are a few key strategies you can employ.

Find out what style you need to be using.

Sometimes this information may be unclear; sometimes journal submission guidelines lack clarity, for instance. Compare what you do know about the style with resources such as style manuals in your library or the OWL's style resources to find a match; or, you can ask a point of contact like an advisor or a journal editor what is expected for your specific context. This is often made easier by knowing which style guides are common in your discipline (because these are often the best place to start looking).

Some journals or other publishing venues use specific in-house styles. These are usually indicated with a set of rules on the journal's website or in a downloadable PDF — you can look for pages such as "Author Guidelines," "Instructions for Authors," "Submission Guidelines," etc. In some cases, in-house style will be just a few modifications on a more widely-used style guide, like requiring APA 7th edition but asking authors to list full names for sources cited in-text rather than just the last name. These are usually indicated in the same way as in-house styles above.

Find a copy of the style guide in your library or online and read the manual. 

The OWL has several resources, and many style guides are available in part or in full on the relevant association's website. You don't need to read manuals cover-to-cover since most of the material is for reference, but style guides usually also have a great deal of information that will help you write your paper or manuscript. For instance:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style's entire first section, almost 200 pages, describes in detail the scholarly process undertaken by researchers using Chicago style, including expectations for navigating copyright law as an author and for what elements authors need to include in their manuscripts (and how those elements are written). 

  • The MLA Handbook includes a substantial section on how to write a research paper or scholarly work in an MLA field, especially useful for beginning scholars or international scholars writing for an American academic context. 

  • The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association includes sections like those mentioned above in addition to guidelines for writing about research with Indigenous populations, rules for nondiscriminatory language, and more. 

At the very least, you'll want to familiarize yourself with the manual's table of contents, general structure, and any special systems that style guides uses (MLA 8's container style is specially designed for research with non-traditional and digital sources, for example). 

Look at examples of texts in your discipline and in journals you would like to publish in. 

Most fields use one or two style guides only, so another way to familiarize yourself with the style outside the context of a reference manual is to look at already-published papers and attend to common elements you notice in formatting, but also tone, vocabulary, and headings, among other elements. Following disciplinary conventions or, more specifically, an academic journal's conventions will help your writing fit into readers' expectations, and will usually also mean you're following style guidelines too.